September 30, 2019
Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Stars Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, Jose Ferrer, Charles Bickford.
As movie-related tantalizers go, Whirlpool’s casting of a young Jose Ferrer as a sociopathic quack astrologer easily tops most, and it’ll continue to do so until the day when concession stands once again begin selling Jujyfruits and Dots (I’m partial to the green ones). This is especially true when we’re also talking about a straight-faced narrative with “A” production values — and also when the Ferrer character proves to be far more than a stock villain, given that he does have intellectually powerful hypnotic powers, notwithstanding his quack-dom. Given that few actors could do “smarmy” as well as Ferrer, the picture gives us a hook that challenges the rest of the package to live up to its potential.
Despite a narrative that gets loopier in increments after a terrific extended set-up, Otto Preminger’s prototypically cool cookie (script by heavyweights Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, from an interesting sounding novel by Guy Endore) gives it a polished shot that qualifies as a clean standup double. And, actually, it’s one of the better movies the famously tyrannical one directed during his long early career tenure at 20th Century-Fox — a few years before he ultimately “went indie” with the once scandalous The Moon Is Blue, which got all Dinner Theater-ribald about Maggie McNamara’s virginity.
But 1949’s Whirlpool is a studio product all the way, laced with in-house craft contributions that were once almost unfathomably routine: Alfred Newman conducting an instantly peggable David Raskin score; three-time Oscar-winner Arthur C. Miller as cinematographer; and, in a guest shot, Oleg Cassini as the costumer for Gene Tierney (the movie’s lead) at a time when they were married in real life. In other words, we’re not exactly talking Attack of the Crab Monsters, though there’s probably no shortage of jumbo shrimp at the fancy parties where Ferrer has recently been showing up with married Tierney at his side as his mind-reading (he does that, too) wows posh L.A. society.
This is not, though, the setting in which the two of them meet — which, in its grabber of an opening, might offer a perverse twist on the old “meeting cute” screenwriters’ concept were Ferrer only interested in her money. With a psychoanalyst husband (Richard Conte) who does fairly well on his own plus inherited family riches that can satisfy just about any whim on her frivolous wish list, Tierney suffers from kleptomania and has just been busted for snatching a $300 pin from a posh department store where she has a large charge account. Opportunist Ferrer just happens to be on the scene, and, like an ambulance-chasing lawyer who in those days might have been putting a happy face on another Tierney (Lawrence’s) real-life rap sheet, defuses the situation in a smoothly executed scene. Say what you will, the guy is competent.
So we have a kleptomaniac and an astrologer who has at least some knowledge of the human mind, which isn’t exactly your everyday 1949 screen twosome. Of course, there’s also the husband, but Conte’s role is unwritten (in contrast to his co-stars’), and a key sub-topic here is his significant ignorance of his wife’s hangups, even though he treats patients in their home all the time. In a way, Ferrer fancies himself as an under-appreciated professional rival to Conte, the way a chiropractor might when being compared to an NFL orthopedic surgeon. And yet, we also get the sense — is this Preminger’s much written-about “objectivity” in action? — that were Ferrer willing to clean up his act and use his gifts in a positive way, he might be be seen as some sort of genius practitioner, as opposed to Conte’s more common competence.
Ferrer’s act is hardly clean. He has a history of fleecing women patients in sometimes dreadful ways and now has his eyes on Tierney’s fortune. This occurs just as a previous one-sided relationship goes bust to launch the movie’s second half on a melodramatic path — one that gives audiences a lot to swallow and is perhaps less interesting than Ferrer’s initial and artful burrowing into Tierney’s mind. This said, the film’s second half has a lot of Charles Bickford, an actor who always merely had to show up to convey instant credibility. As for Tierney, she goes through much of the movie in a wide-eyed daze but effectively so: a risky performance in a difficult role that doesn’t rate that far behind her defining roles in Laura, Leave Her to Heaven and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Too be sure, it’s a bit creepy watching her with knowledge of the own real-life mental breakdowns that kept Tierney off the screen for protracted periods. If you know something of Tierney’s background or have read her excellent autobiography (Self-Portrait), you know the degree to which her emotional problems were not just honestly earned but tragically so.
Preminger, and not just at Fox, had a way of treating melodramatic material with exceptional restraint, and the combination made his best films (and this doesn’t mean Hurry Sundown or Skidoo, whose rewards are more perversely twisted) come off as exceptionally grown-up for their day while perhaps not delivering the catharsis melodrama fanciers demand. Twilight Time’s release, which adds a commentary by the late Richard Schickel carried over from the long-ago DVD, delivers another keen rendering of that Fox black-and-white “look” that has given me so much pleasure over so many decades.
I’ve said this before, but I think that from about 1945 to ’55, Darryl Zanuck was the most competent studio head ever. By no means were all the Fox films of this period masterpieces, and, in fact, few of them were — though Joseph Mankiewicz and Henry King were fashioning the best work of their careers around this time. But nearly every example of the studio’s output gave you something, and here it’s a pro job with one performance that’s so inarguably great that I can’t believe that it has fallen into obscurity. I first saw Whirlpool for the only previous time in 1961 almost immediately after it was sold to TV, and Ferrer’s oiliness has stayed with me for almost 60 years.